Posted by: Donna
Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post yesterday had a fascinating little piece about recent research showing a disparity between the actual positions of the voting public vs. what state legislators believe those positions are, leading to a “systemic bias against liberal policies at the state level”.
Broockman and Skovron find that all legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues. Here, for example, are their findings for health care and same-sex marriage:
The X axis is the district’s actual views, and the Y axis their legislators’ estimates of their views. The thin black line is perfect accuracy, the response you’d get from a legislator totally in tune with his constituents. Lines above it would signify the politicians think the district more liberal than it actually is; if they’re below it, that means the legislators are overestimating their constituents’ conservatism. Liberal legislators consistently overestimate opposition to same-sex marriage and universal health care, but only mildly. Conservative politicians are not even in the right ballpark.
I and a lot of other liberals in red states could have told them this years ago but it’s nice to see our common knowledge borne out in empirical research. The findings help put the lie to the “extremism on both sides” canard too. When someone pulls it on me I often ask if they can point to blue states where the Democratic majority state legislatures are regularly passing wacky left wing bills. What is the left wing equivalent of a Birther Bill and what state has passed one? I invariably get crickets in response.
Matthews and the study’s authors are careful not to draw major conclusions from their findings but there’s a general consensus in the comments section that the influence of campaign donors as well as the age and other demographic characteristics of likely voters have impacts, which seems reasonable to me. Additionally the threat of primary challenges, with Republican legislators being more likely to be challenged from the right than Democrats from the left, may be contributing to Republicans thinking their constituents are more right wing than they really are. That said, that primary threat – while real – is overblown in a least some cases. (More on that in a bit.)
My favorite political blogger Digby picked up this story and has some useful insights that resonate with my own experience about how the media, business, and political establishments help to skew things to the right.
Surprised? I’m not. The study doesn’t answer the question as to why this might be, but I have a quick answer: the political media and the donor class are more conservative than the rest of us. I don’t know how many thousands of times I’ve heard the phrase “it’s a conservative country” from pundits and commentators but I’ve heard it many times. And it isn’t just that explicit belief, but a whole set of assumptions that permeate the commentary at every level. It goes all the way back to Joseph Kraft’s famous column from 1968 to today when you hear the media complain about the voters being stupid and selfish when they seem not to support conservative policies for their own good.
As for the politicians themselves, there are many incentives to be as conservative as their constituents will allow. And it’s not surprising that the people vote for people who are more conservative than they are — they usually have two conservatives to choose from and in the end have to pick the one who’s closer to their beliefs or who holds the cultural signifiers they are forced to substitute for policy agreement. If a liberal is even in the race, he or she usually has less money and almost no institutional support. The Party apparatus in both parties gives its money to the more conservative — under the same assumption that the most conservative choice will always have an easier time winning. It’s a self-perpetuating feedback loop.
Digby is not only right (in my opinion) about the national scene, but she has them pegged in Arizona too, at least based on my interactions with the media and donor class here, many of whom seem to operate under flawed (and more often than not self-serving) assumptions about what Arizonans want and need. And Arizona Republican legislators must be overestimating public support for their positions, given how often their pet ideas fail when they refer them to the ballot. For example, this year they’re trying, yet again, to secede from the union with SCR1016, which would allow the state to ignore whatever federal laws they choose. It’s probably going to fail, as similar goofy secessionist measures have. But it doesn’t stop them from trying.
Arizona has, obviously, a very right wing Republican majority in the state legislature. But conventional wisdom holds that some of them are closet moderates who cast bad votes because they have to fear a primary challenge. To me, this excuse is starting to get stale. It is true that Republicans are sometimes primaried when they are perceived to have strayed from party orthodoxy. So I’m not saying the primary threat doesn’t exist for Republicans. I am saying it’s overblown. (The last time I can remember a Democratic incumbent being primaried in Arizona for ideological reasons was back in 2008 when Paula Aboud primaried Senator Ted Downing for his vote on a spousal rape bill. Democrats reserve that move for very special occasions.)
The reason the threat is overblown is because, ironically enough, Republican primary voters, who tend to be the most conservative voters, seem to have a decent read on the rest of the electorate in whichever jurisdiction they are selecting their general election nominee. So they don’t necessarily vote for the most overtly conservative candidate. Firebrand righties win elections pretty regularly in safe Republican districts, but not so much in competitive legislative or statewide ones. GOP primary voters in those races will choose the inoffensive and blandly affable candidates who can win the general election over the firebrands who might lose to a Democrat. Those voters know who can pull the wool over the eyes of low info voters and a right-leaning Arizona media all too eager to gush gratefully over any moderate-seeming Republican.
Note that “moderate-seeming” is not the same as moderate. Actual moderate Republicans are vanishingly rare in Arizona. (Plenty of them on the Democratic side, though!) State Senators Adam Driggs and John McComish are two such “moderate” Republicans regularly given a pass for their lousy voting records due to the supposed threat of primary challenges. I have lived in both their districts – McComish’s for ten years and Driggs’s for the past three – and I don’t believe that either has any real fear of a primary challenge. It’s not that they can up and start voting with the Democrats all the time but they are secure enough in their continued electoral prospects that they don’t have to vote for the worst Republican bills either. Yet they do. I’ve been saying for awhile that they are probably true believers who occasionally pretend to be reasonable, not the other way around. They could moderate their positions and votes. They simply don’t want to. And this new research leads me to think they might honestly believe their constituents are, or should be, on their side when they do. Dylan Matthews refers to it as “epistemic closure.”
Leave a comment